by Barbara Bascom
I am a pediatrician who specializes in child development. I also design and run programs for disabled children in strange parts of the world. Since early 1990 I have been working in Romania's so-called "orphanages". During the very difficult first two years of my work there, professional colleagues and members of the Western media who came to help or to cover the story often called ahead and asked what they could bring me. My answer was always the same. Bring music - preferably tapes for my Walkman. Music was my lifeline through some very dark days. Although I usually asked for classical music - I was and still am a pop music moron - I received quite a varied collection. One very cold day, I was late for a train and grabbed a couple of tapes on my way out the door. To my surprise, they turned out to be "Neil Diamond's Greatest Hits, Volumes I and II, not Bach or La Boheme. The eight-hour train ride, usually indescribably horrid - crowded, grimy, cold, and grey - turned into a golden day, full of happy thoughts and reminiscences. Needless to say, the tapes were still in my Walkman three weeks later when I accompanied a 17 year old Gypsy girl, Nicoletta, a beloved patient and friend, on the same trip. It was her first time out of the institution where she had spent her entire life. Her life story, including the story of our relationship, highlighted by the experience we shared on the train, is the book I am writing now.
Because Neil Diamond's music has been a source of enjoyment, strength, and inspiration both to Nicoletta and to others who live and work in Romania's institutions ever since that June 1992 day, I have many stories to tell. All of them are true. Today I will write about Childsong. If you and your readers like this story, I will be glad to send others when I return from Romania after the first of the year. In April of this year, I published a book (actually Simon&Schuster, Pocket Books did the publishing), a trade paperback on international adoption. My story about Childsong was first written as the last chapter of the book, but my editor found it so inspiring, it ended up first (ah, editors!). So here folllows an excerpt from the book and an update from 1997.
On July fourth 1995, more than 200 families who have adopted Romanian children gathered in Orlando Florida to hold their third biennial reunion. After three days of workshops and activities in the Disney theme parks, they held a final ceremony to celebrate the nation's birthday and their children's US Citizenship. Most of all, on that final day, they came to celebrate their children.
The day's festivities began in the early morning with ABC's Good Morning America broadcast. While conference participants were interviewed, pictures flashed across the screen of a pre-taped performance of children who remained in Romanian institutions. These children, many of whom couldn't talk four years ago, reached out to their Romanian-American cousins and sang the same song to be performed by the Disney Choir and the adopted children that afternoon. Although the program was interrupted, and most of the American public had no idea that the children who were singing were still in Romanian orphanages, what was obvious was that the children knew the meaning of what they singing. As if the songwriter had known beforehand, it was a perfect expression of the spirit within them. It showed in their faces and rang in their voices.
When the concert was held that afternoon at Epcott Center, Childsong was sung again by the Disney Choir. As the adopted children joined in from the audience, a tiny girl stood up on her chair and did the sign language to the song. Permanently silenced by her past, she had learned to communicate her thoughts and feelings with her hands.
Finally, it had happened. Children who had been sung about, talked about, interpreted, misinterpreted, analyzed, and publicized for five years were able to express themselves. The children sang their song:
We bring the sun
To make you glad
And fill you with the day
We have the wind
To make you dance
And fill you with our play
And you shall be glad!
And you shall dance!
And you shall come
To hear our song
And learn its tune
Before it fades away
(Childsong, from Taproot Manuscript -- Words and music by Neil Diamond)
The July 1995 concert was neither the last nor the first for Childsong. In early 1995, I asked a Romanian poet friend to translate the song. By May we had distributed tapes and lyrics to more than twelve orphanages. Now, children all over the country not only know the song but also perform it for visitors and sometimes even for Romanian TV. In January 1997, I was in Romania working with a very special orphanage in Iasi, the site of my main program. As a surprise, the staff, resident children, and twenty graduates - older children who had moved on to scoala (school) orphanages - gave a performance on a very cold Sunday morning. They were led by Nicoletta, the wonderful Gypsy girl whose response to his tapes had started this whole Neil Diamond wave in Romanian orphanages. There were thirty or forty children in all. One of the therapists played the synthesizer and a nurse played guitar for accompaniment.
During the first singing of Childsong, a little boy who has cerebral palsy demonstrated the new gymnastic skills he had learned in our physical therapy program. Then the children sang colinde - Romanian carols. At that point, I thought the program was over - so did the two Romanian TV crews who came to broadcast the concert. But no. One of our therapists stepped forward. We have one more song, she said, this one dedicated to Neil Diamond who gave us this music. The audience again took their seats, and the TV crews reassembled their cameras. Then the children sang a heartfelt rendition of Multi Ans (Many Years), the Romanian "Happy Birthday". One of the educators had noticed the birthdate in one of the CD or tape package inserts.
Although nearly a year has passed, I have just received the converted videotapes, so I can relive this little concert in my own living room. It's hard to keep my eyes dry when I watch it, but I just grab the Kleenex box and run it over and over. Each time I see the prideful joy on a young boys face as he demonstrates accomplishments he worked so hard for, achievments that come so naturally to most of us, and then hear him join the others in song, I also see in my mind's eye a little girl down in Florida standing on her chair singing those lovely words in sign language. (The signing for childsong is really, really beautiful.) And I know something more than I did before about the spirit of children, especially wounded children, which burns so brightly deep inside all of them and needs only to be given a voice. In January 1997, Childsong gave them that voice. Without Neil Diamond's gift of music, human kindness, and constant message of love, the story behind Childsong would not have occurred.
Thank you, Neil Diamond. From my heart, I thank you. In my world, there is no gift more precious than to open the heart of a child.
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